News analysis

Trump signals US is not a pushover

Missile strike on Syrian airbase a reminder that US is willing and able to use firepower

The volley of 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles did more than just pulverise a Syrian airbase - it also served to signal that the United States under the Trump administration is willing and able to use its considerable firepower should it choose to.

To be sure, senior American officials are going to great lengths to deny suggestions that the US missile attack represents a fundamental shift in US policy in the Middle East. "I would not in any way attempt to extrapolate that to a change in our policy or our posture," said US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. "There has been no change in that status."

But it is clear that there have been shifts.

President Donald Trump could have simply ignored the recent horrific gas attack in the Syrian city of Idlib, apparently perpetrated by Syrian government troops. The Obama administration ignored international outcries over previous chemical and barrel bomb attacks on Syrian civilians, blaming its inaction on Russia, which vetoed any United Nations Security Council resolution pinning the blame on the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

Indeed, a mere few days before the current crisis erupted, US officials signalled even greater disinterest in Syria, by letting it be known that, unlike their Obama administration predecessors, they were prepared to drop American insistence on the removal of Mr Assad, effectively conceding that the Syrian leader and his Russian and Iranian backers have won the civil war.


Tonight, I call on all civilised nations in seeking to end the slaughter and bloodshed in Syria. I ordered a targeted military strike on the airfield in Syria from where the chemical attack was launched. It was a slow and brutal death for so many - even beautiful babies were cruelly murdered in this very barbaric attack. No child of God should ever suffer such horror.



What America did is nothing but foolish and irresponsible behaviour, which only reveals its short-sightedness and political and military blindness to reality.


The abrupt change from a policy of studied indifference to one of ordering the single-biggest American air strike in the six-year Syrian conflict was advocated by US military planners anxious to emphasise that the US continues to make a clear distinction between conventional weapons and the use of weapons of mass destruction, such as gas attacks.

For Mr Trump, it was also an opportunity to separate his administration from the failed Middle East policies of the outgoing Obama team. As he reminded journalists, it was former president Barack Obama who threatened to use force by drawing a "red line" over the use of chemical weapons by Syria, only to ignore his own threats. And it was the Obama administration which signed a deal with Russia over the removal and destruction of Syria's chemical arsenals, an arrangement which was clearly not respected. By authorising the missile strikes, Mr Trump not only satisfied US strategic objectives, but also burnished his own image as a decisive leader.

The missile strike was cleverly handled. Russia was informed in advance. The possibility that the Russians may have alerted Syria of the incoming attacks was deemed in Washington as less significant than the danger of accidentally killing any Russian soldiers. The private military back-channels between Russia and the US have therefore worked as intended.

The fact that the strike took place without United Nations Security Council authority may be troubling to some governments, but it was largely received with satisfaction by America's allies in both Europe and the Middle East as a blunt message to Russia that Washington will not always sit idly by while Moscow paralyses international action.

The Trump administration has been beset by setbacks in its efforts to push its domestic agenda, and many observers doubted that the new President, focused as he is on his "America first" agenda, would intervene in a big way in a foreign conflict.

But Mr Tillerson, in briefing reporters after the missile attack, made clear that one reason for the intervention was Russia's failure to rein in its Syrian client state.

"Either Russia has been complicit or Russia has been simply incompetent," he said, referring to Moscow's apparent inability to prevent the Assad regime from using chemical weapons despite the 2013 agreement.

The US action was also a subtle reminder to Chinese President Xi Jinping - who was Mr Trump's guest while the Syrian missile strikes unfolded - that the current US administration is prepared to bare its teeth.

Overzealous Chinese commentators who have now taken to dismissing the US as a "spent force" should take notice of the fact that, at the flick of a finger, the American President was able to authorise the sort of missile strike that other nations need months to prepare.

This was a reminder of raw US military power, which remains undiminished. And of an administration which is prepared to use it.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 08, 2017, with the headline 'Trump signals US is not a pushover'. Print Edition | Subscribe